Mastrodonato: Red Sox’ Hunter Renfroe wisely suggests Garrett Richards is struggling because ‘he doesn’t believe in himself’

It sounds like the Red Sox have gotten through to Garrett Richards and saved him from himself.

“I think it’s all in Garrett’s head, more than anything,” said Red Sox outfielder Hunter Renfroe after the team’s 6-5 win over the Royals on Monday. “I think he doesn’t believe in himself. I think that’s his biggest thing.”

Renfroe said the obvious part out loud: Richards hasn’t had any confidence.

Pitching naked, as the players now call it when a pitcher doesn’t use any illegal substances, Richards looked like he might never again record another out in the big leagues for a brief period during Monday’s game.

He had only recorded four outs when the Royals had taken him deep three times, hit three singles and had jumped to a 5-1 lead in the second inning.

Read the body language and you might’ve thought this was it for him.

Having seen him struggle mightily over his last three starts, and talk openly about how concerned he was that his decade-long MLB career was coming to a close thanks to MLB’s new rules prohibiting substances, it looked like he was cooked.

Carlos Santana, Michael Taylor and Whit Merrifield had hit homers off him already while Richards stood on the mound for his second at-bat against Jorge Soler and took the sign.

Then he threw a curveball. It registered at 72 mph.

He threw another at 70 mph and eventually recorded an out.

He kept throwing the curve, eventually landing one that registered at 68 mph, 12 mph slower than his average curveball this year, and mixing it in with a changeup, a pitch he learned how to throw over the weekend.

Before he knew it, Richards had completed 5-2/3 innings, saved the Red Sox bullpen, given his offense a chance to climb back into the game and watched them capture their 26th come-from-behind win of the season.

After the game, the 33-year-old looked as shocked as anybody that he had found a way to compete.

“I’m figuring it out,” he said. “I’m starting to throw a changeup now, learned that this week in three days, and now I’m throwing a curveball at about 60 mph which is different for me. Just trying to figure out how to pitch again. Stay in the zone, be competitive and give us a chance to win. That’s the only thing I care about.”

It’s a good thing, too, because it was starting to look like Richards might need a trip to the injured list or a mental leave of absence.

After MLB announced it would eliminate the use of any grip-enhancing substances, Richards took the ball in Atlanta on June 16, got shelled for six runs in four innings and then sounded like his career was over in his postgame press conference. He said things like how grateful he was to have pitched in the majors as long as he had before MLB changed the rules, and how many players would lose their livelihoods due to the stark changes in the middle of a season.

Without any grip, Richards never threw a curveball that night in Atlanta.

But something else happened that night that was a precursor of how the Red Sox would get Richards back on track: the manager disagreed with him.

Asked why Richards didn’t throw any curveballs that game, Alex Cora said he thought it was the wrong attack plan. The Braves hit fastballs well and the manager would need to speak to the players and coaches to figure out why Richards suddenly eliminated one of his most effective breaking balls.

Monday, when he was standing on the mound with one out in the second inning, he had allowed 15 runs in his previous seven innings.

To get through the final 4-1/3 innings of the night without allowing a run might not seem monumental to most, but it looked liked a miracle when juxtaposed against recent results.

“You have to compete with what you have,” Cora said afterward. “He didn’t look great in the beginning but he didn’t quit. He kept going and he put zeroes at the end to give us a chance. Offensively we’re capable of coming back. We know that.

“But he threw a breaking ball at 68 mph. He started throwing changeups and sinkers. Just trying to find a way. That’s the way it works. Sometimes you’re going to have your A-stuff, sometimes you’re going to feel great and sometimes you’re going to be just a regular pitcher with no stuff and you have to find a way to do it and he did.”

And while most pitchers seem aggravated that the rules changed in the middle of the season without any time to prepare, managers are pushing their guys to adapt.

“I’ve never had to make this kind of change in my whole career,” Richards said. “I’m just trying to make the best of it.”

At one point Monday, the cameras caught him dipping his elbow into the ice bath and patting his arm with rosin, the only legal substances pitchers are now allowed to use.

“I need to stop sweating,” he said. “If I can stop sweating, everything will be fine, but I’m a guy that sweats a whole lot. Just trying to work around the new rules and things we have right now. Trying to figure out different ways for me to be successful. That’s what was asked of us to do and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Dipping his arm in ice stopped the sweating, he said. Without sweating, he could get a grip.

But Renfroe, a teammate of his since the two played together with the Padres in 2019, thought the battle was more of a mental one.

“I think it’s that more than anything,” Renfroe said. “He’s a great pitcher. I think if he believes in himself, I think that’s half the battle. I think he’s still throwing 96-mph. He invented a changeup that’s a really, really good pitch for him and worked really well tonight. I think his curveball and slider are still there. I think he’s got to go up there and believe in himself and keep throwing the ball.”

Perhaps confidence can do more than any substance.

“That’s the No. 1 aspect,” Renfroe said. “If you don’t have confidence in yourself, you might as well not even be playing the game.”

Richards had none for the last two weeks. He might’ve found some on Monday.

It sounds like his team got through to him.

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